In my last post I ranted and raved about how photographers can be so divisive and sometimes downright unpleasant (to put it mildly) about other peoples choices when buying into a camera system. I argued that there are no really bad cameras on the market today but that some cameras are better suited to particular photographic tasks than others. I am sure that you agree with me... that is until I write that the system you use is not my favorite. Then I instantly become some ignorant hack filling the internet with pages of mindless drivel. Nevertheless, I'm going to explore some of the issues related to cameras for use in travel photography and I'm also going to nail my colors to the flag post and explain the specific choices that I have made regarding the photography on display on this site. Let me seal the bunker door, put on my flack jacket. helmet, grab my trusted FN 7.62 and begin...
First, out of all the recognized genera of photography, travel photography must be the hardest to define. I mean we all know what is meant when people talk about landscape photography, or street, food, portrait and documentary photography. Travel photography can be all these otherwise distinct things and much more. How do you define travel photography? In addition is the issue of what the photographs are being taken for. A person wanting some lovely photographs to remember their holiday will have very different requirements to a professional putting together material for an exhibition. Irrespective of these and other issues, I believe that travel photography should leave the viewer feeling that they have been somewhere themselves, and that great travel photography should make people wish that they could go there... hopefully even move them to arranging their own visit. Nothing, and I mean nothing, gives me greater satisfaction than when I get an email from someone who's viewed my images and emailed me for advice on planing their own trip to Vietnam.
Anyway, back to the topic. Due to the vast variety of possible subject matter when you travel to a new destination with your camera, it's essential that you have a lens selection capable of meeting a wide range of demands. On the other hand, most people don't want to carry around a heavy bag with two bodies, seven lenses, two flashes, spare batteries and a laptop. Oh, and don't forget the tripod. You might laugh, but for many years this is exactly what I did. In fact, before the advent of digital photography it was even worse. My gear in those days consisted of two Pentax 67 bodies, a Fuji 617 panoramic camera and what felt like 600 kilos of lenses. Obviously I was younger, fitter and a lot more stupid. The principle remains, however. decide what you think you are likely to shoot the most and select the appropriate lens or lenses.
For many a single super-zoom might be the perfect answer or maybe a long kit lens with a variable aperture. The advantage of this is that it eliminates the need for extra lenses and leaves the photographer with a more upmarket kind of point-and-shoot system which can cover most eventualities well enough. Improving on this might be a two lens selection. For example, a mid-range zoom like a 24-70 provides adequate wide to almost portrait possibilities. Then add to this a second lens that best meets your interests. This could be anything from an ultra wide angle for a landscape photographer or a telephoto lens for wildlife, sports or details. A 70-200 is not a small lens, but many manufactures offer an f/4 version which is both cheaper and lighter. At a push this can be combined with a small tele-converter which adds range with very little loss of image quality. For many years after switching to digital this is pretty much what I did. I carried a Fujifilm body with a Nikon F mount and the Nikon 14-24 and 24-70. For my needs this was a perfect combination. On some trips I would also take a 70-200, but even then I rarely used it. Having said that, a camera body and the 'holy trinity' of lenses isn't a crazy amount to carry and will fit into an average shoulder bay or small backpack quite easily. There can be no doubt that with a set up like this you would be ready for anything and everything your travels present you with. Modern technology has, however, presented us with another choice, and maybe a more difficult one.
Should the travel photographer carry a DSLR or mirrorless system? I am very aware that many people are asking this question, but I'm going to duck it. well, not really. What I will say, is that if you have already invested in a DSLR body and lenses, you should probably stick with them for now. Maybe, if you're a Canikon shooter you can think about changing to mirrorless next time you want to upgrade your body. You can still use your current lenses with the native built mount adapters, and you won't have to replace your entire system at one time. Did you notice what I've just done? I've suggested that no travel photographer would want to replace his or her present DSLR body with another. The future is mirrorless! You might disagree with me, and that's fine, but as someone who spends over half the year away from home and carrying almost all his kit everywhere he goes, you won't get me to change my mind. To be honest with you, for me the biggest advantage of going mirrorless is not the smaller and lighter system, although make no mistake I really feel and appreciate the difference. No, what I enjoy the most are the other advantages of mirrorless systems. A 3.69 million dot 'what-you-see-is-what-you-get' EVF is a game-changer for me. In many culturally sensitive situations a totally silent shutter also allows me to make photographs that I could never have created before. I could go on, but yeah! That's right. I'm one of them.
I mentioned earlier that I used to shoot Fujifilm bodies with Nikon glass. The day eventually came when my fourth or fifth S5Pro body finally gave up the ghost and I just couldn't find another. They had been out of production for some time and I think I'd already bought all the remaining ones in Vietnam. So i switched. No, not to mirrorless. At that time the few mirrorless offerings on the market were laughable wannabee cameras. I bought the Nikon D800E. Wow! What a camera. I though that I'd died and gone to camera heaven. That was eventually relegated to back-up status and I got the D810. Bigger wow! The problem was when the time came to upgrade to the D850. In my opinion it is probably the best DSLR that has ever been produced, but I couldn't do it. I genuinely wanted to, but I just couldn't bring myself to purchase it. I'd been seduced. Some would say I'd lost my mind, but I hadn't. I'd lost my heart. I sold or gave away everything I had... and bought a Fujifilm X-T3. And that is the point of this whole story. The best camera is not always the best camera. It's the camera that enables you to take the best photographs you can take in the specific situations you shoot. Kugara zvakanaka!
VinaPix at work in Long Hai on the Southern Vietnamese coast.
Much to my surprise, I received a grand total of three emails in response to my last blog. You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m being sarcastic, but you’d be wrong… no one has ever responded to a blog of mine before. Three emails. Wow! Would I be getting ahead of myself if I began to dream of future fame in online publishing? What do you think? Actually, don't bother answering that. The point is, however, that all three emails asked the same question. That surprised me, and for reasons I will explain it also disturbed me. Just so you know, I have replied to all three messages and I’m not trying to belittle or criticize their writers, but it might be a good idea to deal with this issue now, hopefully ensuring that we won’t need to address it in the future.
All three writers wanted to know what camera I used for my travel photography. That’s not a bad question, but I think it’s the wrong one. It sort of implies that it’s the camera that takes the photographs, and that anyone with the same camera will take the same photos. Sounds pretty stupid when it’s written like that, doesn’t it? It’s the person behind the camera that makes the photograph and the camera only does what it’s made to do by its user. A few things follow on from this. Firstly, it’s the photographer that really matters. Therefore, it’s not really important what camera is being used as long as, and this is the final point, the photographer knows how to use the camera well enough to create the image he or she has in mind. Let’s unpack this a little.
The word ‘vision’ is popular these days, and although I use it here, I dislike it intensely. What do we really mean when we use it? Does it mean your subject matter for a portfolio of work? Perhaps it means a distinctive artistic style? Possibly it’s the impact a creator wishes to have on their audience? I don’t know. I do know that when I go to a gallery exhibition and each and every photograph has a ‘vision statement’ two or three paragraphs long I instantly lose interest. If a photograph needs to be explained in detail, then there’s something very wrong with the photograph. Nevertheless, ‘vision’ or whatever other word you would like to use, it is important to have some organizing or collective principals to hold your work together and give it direction. Indeed, I believe that this is fundamental to being a good, and becoming a better, photographer. I know what mine is. What is yours?
The first thing that springs to mind when thinking about this, is passion. We need to be photographing something to which we feel a strong emotional connection. This could be almost anything; family, food, portraits, your hometown, sport, landscapes, birds or even something as specific as orchids. The reality is that if you can’t put some of your own heart into your photography is very unlikely that anyone viewing it will feel very much. Spending time and money creating images of something in which you have no interest is a chore and not a joy. Following on from this, we also need opportunity. Maybe you can take out your camera every evening after work or maybe you have to wait for autumn colors once a year to photograph your favorite forest, but either way, dreaming about it is not the same as actually doing it.
Ultimately, however, it is the way you see and decide to photograph a subject that really matters. What makes you take this photograph and not another? Why does one particular perspective or composition appeal to you while you ignore a dozen or so alternatives? These are important questions and ones we need to be able to answer for ourselves, if not for others. In the answer to questions like these, and many more, lies the evolution of our craft and product. Something I have found very helpful over the years in this regard, it to do online image searches using platforms like 500px. I used to type in selected key words and study the photographs that resulted. Why do I like this image or what is it that I don’t like about it? If I had been there how would I have done it differently? What is it that makes this one stand out from all the others I’ve looked at? These are good questions and we should all be able to answer them. A more difficult thing is to then look at your own work and ask the same questions!
Where are we? Oh yes. I said the camera doesn’t matter. Well, that’s pretty self-explanatory. The truth is that just about every camera on the market today is good enough for most of what we might want to do with it. It’s true. Sure, if you want to print fine art star trails, a twelve-megapixel sensor might not be the best choice. On the other hand, to use a medium format digital camera to post your pictures on facebook doesn’t make much sense either. The vast majority of images are viewed and shared online, however, and very few monitors or sharing platforms come close to matching the image quality of any contemporary camera. I think the real issue is one of finding the camera and lens combination that best meets your financial constraints and learning how to use them well. More about this in a moment, but first one more brief comment on cameras.
The real reason why I don’t like to chat about the cameras I use is that no matter what I write, well over half the people who read it will dismiss my thoughts and even my photographs because in their opinion I use the wrong camera. If I say that I use a Canon system for example, many Nikon or Pentax users will puff up their chests, look down their long noses and condescendingly pity me for not being one of the enlightened. If I write that I use a mirrorless camera, a multitude of DSLR shooters will shrug their shoulders and shake their heads and express regret that another has been lost to this horrible trend where traditional photography skills are being replace by computer chips. If I am foolish enough to admit that I use an APS-C sensor, instantly legions of full-frame DSLR and mirrorless camera owners will recoil in horror screaming warnings about poor dynamic range and high ISO noise. It really doesn’t matter what camera I have, I will never have the right one.
I don’t believe that we have good or bad cameras any more. I do think that some cameras are better suited to certain tasks, but that’s a personal opinion and really comes down to why a person is making photographs rather than which system is better than another. Much, much more important is knowing how to use your camera to get the most out of it. Someone with a cheap entry level camera and kit lens is far more likely to take good photographs if they understand the exposure triangle, than an individual with a massive medium format body and a five-thousand dollar lens shooting in program mode. If you ask me (I know you didn’t, but you are reading this) it is knowing how to use your camera, along with having a clear idea of why you take your photographs that separates a photograph from a snapshot.
This is all getting too long, however, and I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you’re hoping that I’m almost done. So that’s it for now. Next time I’ll pick up on this and share some of my thoughts on camera systems for travel photography. Kugara zvakanaka!
Hard at work near Long Hai on the southern coast of Vietnam.
I know that many other travel photographers would disagree with me, but I'm convinced that a great deal of success in this genera comes down to... luck. I've spent a week or so at one or other location without getting the photograph I want, only to have a tourist who's been there half an hour show me a killer shot on his cameras LCD screen. On the other hand one photograph does not make the kind of story or portfolio that most clients demand. Success is born of consistently taking good photographs. While that wonderful serendipitous moment can never be removed from the equation, some careful preparation can go a long way. Morton's first rule of travel photography is the '3T' rule... and the 'T' stands for time.
The first 'T' is for the time of year. I know that many people, be they enthusiastic amateur photographers or professionals, live lives constrained by a wide variety of commitments. There's work, there's family and of course there's the simple issue of finance. Global travel is cheaper today that it has ever been, but once you add up flights, hotels, restaurants and local travel etc. it still adds up to more than pocket change for most of us. All these things, and quite a few others, make it almost impossible for someone to just pack their bags and travel whenever the itch need scratching. This, however is exactly why the time of year you visit your destination region or country is so important. To take time away from work and family and spend that hard earned cash on a trip to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) only to arrive in the middle of the summer monsoon would be a disaster.
When you first start to plan your trip, do an online search to check out the weather conditions. This doesn't just mean is it summer or winter, but more importantly things like precipitation, hours of sunlight and cloud cover. These are the things that really matter when you're standing there with a camera in your hands. One of the best travel photographers I know was once sent by a client to Ha Long bay to photograph a cruise ship among the islands... in the middle of the winter rains! An addendum to this first point has to do with regional travel. Here in Vietnam, for example when the weather is best in the South it's terrible in the North and vice versa. If you see online advertising for a photo tour of Vietnam that offers you the whole country in ten days, don't bother reading the fine print as it'll be a waste of time. If you're planing to travel within a region pay attention to local weather conditions also.
The second 'T' is for time of day. This one is just as important, but often more difficult to plan for. Obviously the best times for photography are usually early morning and late afternoon. On more than a few occasions I've risen long before dawn and spent an hour or two hiking through the dark to an iconic location only to find that there's a mountain to the East which blocks out all direct sunlight until eight or nine in the morning. Another common mistake is to plan to photograph some special location or building only to discover when you're there that the angle you want to shoot from is facing the rising or setting sun and you have nothing but a silhouette.
To overcome these and other similar problems local knowledge is always most helpful. There are, however, other options. The easiest is probably to do an image search on somewhere like Flickr or 500px and when you find an image that looks like the one you have in mind, simply send an in-media message asking the photographer what time of day they took the photograph... and what time of year, to avoid the trap of the first 'T'. I'm sure you'll get a few helpful responses. Some locations have their own specific time demands that need to be considered, especially buildings. The ancient and visually stunning Jade Emperor pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, for example is only worth visiting between about 11h00 and 13h00 depending on the time of year. Why? Because it's only at this time of the day the the sun is almost directly above and can enter the building through holes in the roof and lighten the windowless worship halls and their incredible altars.
Interior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Chua Ngoc Hoang) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The final 'T' is for time on location. To find, compose and take a good photograph, more often than not, requires time. You need time to explore the location, to find interesting subject material, experiment with composition and then to set up and take a great photograph. Add to this that sometimes the clouds are wrong or that you have to wait for other people to take their own snapshots and move off you will rarely have as much time as you would like at a particular place. Also working against you is the fact that you probably want to fit as much into your trip as possible. By giving one location time you are automatically denying yourself time at another. It's not easy.
It's best to admit that you probably can't shoot everything you would like to. Having said this, however, with the aid of something like Google Maps you can probably manage a lot more than most visitors. Start by prioritizing the subjects you most want to photograph and then identify the other places you'd like to photograph nearby. Plan a route that you can accomplish in a single walk or excursion. Remember that the estimated travel times provided by Google Maps are never ever going to be accurate. Always give yourself more time to move from location to location. Planing your travels this way might sound too regimented and more like hard work than pleasure, but it is the one way to ensure that you maximize the limited time you have available and come home with the best photographs you could have taken. Kugara zvakanaka!
I guess that I need to start somewhere. The question is really, where's a good place to start. I'm pretty sure no one is interested in my life story, so there goes fifty years of possibilities. This is a photography website, so maybe I should begin with my introduction to photography... "I was about twelve years old when my father gave me my first camera..." nah! Boring! This blog business isn't as easy as I thought it was going to be. I mean, why do people write blogs? More to the point, as I'm not a pathological narcissist, what makes me think that other people will want to wade through blog after blog of badly written English to explore the brain farts of a mediocre and relatively unknown photographer living in South East Asia? Beats me.
This, of course, is part of the reality of being a photographer in the social media age. It's no longer enough to be good at your craft and work hard. Now you need to have something called a 'social media presence'. (I'd like to meet the clown who came up with that idea in a dark alley, on a dark night and with a baseball bat in my hands.) Social Media! For me it started with facebook. Start a page, post your pictures, follow other photographers, litter the internet with positive comments, collect a sea of loyal followers and soon the whole world will be knocking at your door, I was told.
Did that. Sort of. No one knocked. Not once. My mistake, it seems. Well meaning friends explained that facebook wasn't for professionals... I needed LinkedIn. No problem. I eagerly signed up and padded my profile, blackmailed friends into becoming contacts and waited for the flood. I even moved my bed next to the front door in case I missed that first knock. I didn't miss it. It never came. Turns out it was my own fault. I wasn't on Instagram. A few clicks on the keyboard and then this problem was also solved... until I learn't about twitter. I guess that by now you can see where I'm going with all of this.
The reality is that I've been sucked down into the basement level of Dante's social media hell. I spend my days and nights feeding this hydra pathetic scraps of my professional life, praying that they will be enough to placate it's infinite appetite. All the time hoping that day by day and hour by hour I'm pushing back that terrifying moment when I will have nothing left to offer, and it will turn on me and devour me whole. Having survived wars, floods and a whole host of angry African wildlife, I can see my epitaph: "Here lies Ian Morton. 1963 - 2019. Taken from us by his keyboard." What a way to go.
So, in case you were wondering, although there's no reason why you should be, that's the reason I'm starting this blog. You see, it's a new beginning for me... or rather a return to my roots. I've spent the last twenty years photographing Vietnam for other people. Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. The clients I've worked for have given me the opportunity to do what I love; to travel and take photographs. I've had a great time and made a good living. The problem has been the photographs. Trying to convince frozen Europeans to visit sunny Vietnam for their winter holidays my clients have always required a particular kind of photograph. Clear blue skies, pristine white beaches edged with the stereotypical coconut trees and a uniform variety of luxury five-star resorts. This isn't the Vietnam I know and love.
My passion is for the original Vietnam, dare I say the 'unspoiled' Vietnam? Those secluded coves, rugged mountain peaks, remote jungle villages and unvisited ancient pagodas that have not yet been assaulted by hoards of the professionally unwashed clutching their copies of lonely planet. I want to photograph Vietnam as it has always been, a sublimely beautiful place abounding in its own unique history and culture. It's still here, almost everywhere hidden in plain sight, if you know where to look. This is what I want to explore and document, before it too is washed away by the rising tide of bland globalization. Fortunately for me, I now find myself at a place where a can do just this. To revisit all the amazing places I've discovered over the last twenty years, and to photograph them the way I want to.
I'm turning my back on all the things I've been told that I should do to succeed as a photographer. I'm no longer going to worry about how many 'likes' I have on facebook or Instagram. I'm just going to travel and take the photographs that I want to take. With this bimonthly rambling of poorly chosen adjectives and mixed metaphor's I'll share with anyone who might be interested where I am and what I'm doing. This little blog is it. My sole contribution to satisfying the infinite greed of the www vampire that lives beyond my keyboard. Ahh! The feeling of freedom just writing that gives me. It's almost as if the adventure has begun before I take a step out of the door. Maybe I chose the wrong title for this first blog. Possibly it should have been "Here goes Ian Morton 2019 - ?" Kugara zvakanaka!